Belfast Telegraph

Cullen a thoughtful and honest man of many talents still inspiring Leinster

Old rivals: Alan Quinlan and Leo Cullen exchange views at Croke Park in 2009
Old rivals: Alan Quinlan and Leo Cullen exchange views at Croke Park in 2009

By Alan Quinlan

If you were relying on Google to get the full picture of my relationship with Leo Cullen, you would be a long time digging.

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One incident inevitably dominates the search results; there is little mention of the 13 Tests we played together in green, the many Ireland 'A' caps we earned in tandem, or the numerous other provincial battles we fought over the years.

You'd swear the one and only time our paths crossed was in that maul at Croke Park in 2009. The truth is, we used to fight a lot on the field; he was a hardy second-row who could give as good as he got. I rarely took a backward step either.

It was like that between Munster and Leinster back then. They couldn't stand the sight or sound of us; talk of their rivals as European champions was akin to nails on the blackboard.

I fought with Leo and many other men in blue, that's the way it was, it was never personal. You couldn't allow it to be because you'd often be holed up together in international camps a few weeks or months after the interpros.

Leo was nearly always measured. I envied people like that who could keep their emotions in check. The beauty of that being your natural disposition ensures that when you do actually lose it, others are certain to listen.

His progression to coaching made sense; his bravery, leadership skills and rugby brain are as valuable off the pitch as they were on it.

Some of Leo's other key traits, however, such as humility, his incredible work ethic and ability to see the bigger picture, are probably invisible to the untrained eye.

Consequently, he doesn't get the credit he deserves for the work he has done with Leinster. He doesn't court it either to be fair, he never even seems miffed at the praise lavished on Stuart Lancaster.

It was only four years ago, remember, that Cullen was under serious pressure. His appointment at the age of 37, even though it was initially on a short-term basis, raised eyebrows. When the opening four Champions Cup pool games ended in defeat for Leinster, the 'I told you so' brigade were locked and loaded.

Cullen didn't panic though and saw a great opportunity to give six young players - Tadhg Furlong, Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose, Peter Dooley, James Tracy and Ross Molony - European debuts the next time out against Bath.

There has been quite an up-turn in fortunes since, two PRO14 titles and a Champions Cup crown from five finals, and right now Leinster look stronger than ever as they chase a second double in three seasons.

The success is not all down to Cullen either obviously - the school and club structures and academy system within Leinster are the lifeblood of it all.

Critics will point to the unmatched crop of quality Leinster can pick from every year, but managing such a huge operation and keeping so many talented players happy, hungry and humble is no mean feat.

The whole scenario reminds me a abit of Jim Gavin's tenure with Dublin's footballers; maybe Cullen's management skills will only get the plaudits they deserve when he departs.

But in the same vein as Gavin, Cullen has fostered a culture where the collective is the most important thing. Egos are not welcome, humility trickles through from the top down.

His tactical nous may be the most under-appreciated of all Cullen's managerial qualities; last weekend's thumping of Northampton was notable for the selections of Caelan Doris, Jamison Gibson-Park, Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour as much as it was for the emphatic scoreline.

Cullen may not generate the same fear factor as some of the ranters and ravers in the game, but that's not the primary aim of the head coach. It's about getting the best out of the players you have and getting the big decisions right more often than not.

When I look at Leo Cullen - and I suspect those who played with, against and under him would largely agree - I see a fair man, which is perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay him.

After the 2009 semi-final, knowing I was facing a lengthy ban that would rule me out of the Lions tour, Leo penned a letter to the European Rugby Cup (ERC) hearing in my defence, insisting I didn't put my fingers in his eyes.

He didn't have to do that, and while the trip to the South Africa ultimately still bypassed me, that gesture brought great comfort in the dark times that followed.

If that episode from more than 10 years ago stills hold any relevance, that thoughtful, honest action from Leo Cullen should really be it.

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